Beware Japan’s new political beast
Japan can now wipe the political dribble from its chin and step into its own freshly pressed and creased pair of democratic long pants. It may even be allowed to stay out late and fill the occasional pipe. In other words, the nation has finally grown up. That seems to be the international consensus following the victory of the Democratic Party of Japan in last month’s elections.
The crushing defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled Japan for all but 11 months since 1955, has—so political pundits believe—finally ushered in a mature two-party system of the kind enjoyed by such “Blue Ribbon” democracies as Britain and the United States.
The DPJ got 42% of the popular vote and 64% of the seats, while the LDP and its coalition partners got almost 38% of the vote and 29% of the 480 lower house seats. Given that incumbent political parties tend to lose support, we can expect the LDP and their allies to return to power in a few years’ time, and for the two parties to then take turns in the hot seat, just like the Democrats and Republicans in the United States or Labour and the Conservatives in Britain.
The emergence of Japan’s own two-party system has been the result of the electoral reforms made when the LDP briefly lost its grip on power in 1993. These changes created a hybrid system that combined directly elected constituency members (300) with proportionally elected block seats (180). This allowed smaller political factions to survive, while encouraging them to coalesce. Needless to say, this was custom-made for Japanese politics in the ’90s, a time of breakaway factions, new parties, and mergers that eventually led to the formation of the present DPJ.
With two powerful political blocs now competing for voters’ affections, the feeling is that things can only get better. The sleaze, cronyism, and pork barreling that characterized Japanese politics during the LDP’s one-party rule will be a lot harder now that the public’s hand is on a lever that can open a trapdoor under any administration.
But while it may help solve some old problems, a two-party system also raises new dangers. As we see in the West, it is likely to lead to a narrowing of the political spectrum, as the two major parties fight for the all-important center ground.
The effects of this can already be seen. In terms of hard policy differences, there is little to separate the two parties. In the eyes of the voters, the DPJ seemed to put political blue water between itself and its opponents on just enough issues to convince them that they offered change. These were opposing “amakudari” (descent from heaven), whereby retiring bureaucrats take jobs in industries they formerly supervised; family-friendly proposals, like child allowances and free public high schools; and toll-free national expressways.
But these differences hardly constitute a yawning ideological chasm. Amakudari is not so much an LDP vs DPJ issue, but rather the result of Japan’s history as a one-party system and the creeping corruption this allowed. By the time of the next election, the LDP will probably have taken on the unlikely role of pointing out government sleaze and graft.
The other two manifesto commitments, aimed respectively at families with children and motorists, were clever vote winners, but will need additional government funding. The DPJ also had an important fourth policy: income support for farmers. Designed to steal support from the LDP in its core rural constituencies, this was yet another plan with a price tag on it.
This leads us to the real dangers of Japan’s new political system. With two alternating parties going head-to-head, what you get is less a debate on the best way to raise the overall fortunes and quality of a country, but instead a competition to offer voters more benefits at less cost. In essence this means a cut-tax-and-increase-public-spending approach.
Japan’s astronomical public debt—almost twice as big as the GNP—was mainly created by recent LDP administrations prompted into spending vast amounts of money they didn’t have on economic stimulus packages by political opponents promising to spend even more, creating an economic time bomb. If the LDP grip on power had been as secure as it was in the ’60s and ’70s, such economic mismanagement would have been unlikely.
With the DPJ now regaling the masses with promises of public largess, the LDP has two choices: either reposition itself as the Draconian party of fiscal responsibility, get annihilated at the next election, but have the last laugh when the Japanese economy finally collapses, or beat the DPJ at its own game by suggesting even more publicly funded benefits for voters. I would recommend free massages for the elderly, tax breaks on dog clothing, bicycle parking grants, etc, etc. In this way, we can enjoy the spectacle of a country passing rapidly from political infancy to senility without an intervening period of adulthood.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).